clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ Is a Step Back in the Post–Michael Bay Era

After five films of explosive, mind-numbing action scenes, Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ had run its course. ‘Bumblebee’ was a pleasant surprise, but the latest film feels straight out of a Hasbro assembly line.

Paramount/Ringer illustration

While Succession spent most of its run skewering the über-wealthy, the Transformers movies, of all things, also managed to catch a few strays in the series. Waystar Royco’s movie studio is responsible for the Kalispitron franchise, which Cousin Greg describes in Season 2 as “solid, mediocre entertainment.” Setting aside that Kalispitron is phonetically similar to the villainous Decepticons of Transformers lore, we know that this fictional IP is centered on giant robots and beginning to run out of ideas. By Succession’s final season, the next entry in the franchise, Kalispitron: Hibernation, has become an overlong shit show mired in expensive reshoots—turns out, a premise centered on a robot sleeping in a cave doesn’t yield anything interesting. (“YOU HAVE AWOKEN ME FROM MY HIBERNATION!” a robot bellows in a snippet of the film, which is hilariously juxtaposed with a group of bored Scandinavians looking on in despair.)

Succession didn’t always pull directly from the real world, but it’s not hard to imagine Paramount Pictures reaching a similar inflection point when it comes to the Transformers franchise. With Michael Bay at the helm for the first five films, the series was synonymous with his signature Bayhem: explosive, mind-numbing action scenes interspersed with overly sexualized female characters and racist caricatures. To experience a Bay-directed Transformers movie is like watching the “America, Fuck Yeah!” sequence from Team America: World Police delivered without a hint of irony: Human- and robot-kind work together in the pursuit of freedom, even if it means leveling entire cities in the process. The franchise became so absurd that Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter responsible for three of those five movies, admitted there is no logical sense to Bay’s unique brand of chaos—and he meant it as a compliment.

Your mileage will certainly vary on Bay—I remain a proud hater, though Pain & Gain legitimately slaps—but even his biggest diehards should be willing to concede that his reign over Transformers had run its course. (When none other than Steven Spielberg tells you to call it quits, it’s best to listen.) A clean break suited both the studio and the director, and Paramount responded by moving forward with a Transformers prequel that was a complete 180 from the typical Bay bluster.

The bar was so low for the Transformers franchise that it’s not enough to call Bumblebee the best of the bunch—it feels like it was beamed in from a different universe, one where characters and emotion take precedence over wanton robo-destruction. Set in the ’80s, Bumblebee follows Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a wayward teen who just so happens to pluck the film’s eponymous Autobot, disguised as a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, from a local junkyard. It doesn’t take long for Charlie to realize she’s got way more than a car on her hands, and Bumblebee settles into a rhythm as the two form a genuinely touching bond. For Charlie, “Bee” is helping her reconcile with the grief she carries over losing her father; the Autobot, meanwhile, rediscovers himself after an opening skirmish with a Decepticon erased his memory and destroyed his voice box. (Which is why Bumblebee, going back to the first Transformers movie, communicates via radio.)

Bumblebee doesn’t score too many points for originality, borrowing liberally from the likes of E.T., The Iron Giant, and The Love Bug. (There’s a scene in which Charlie has to convince Bumblebee to stand down that’s so similar to the climax of The Iron Giant, I half expected her to say, “You don’t have to be a gun.”) But the film isn’t a cheap imitation of the works that inspired it: In the assured hands of director Travis Knight, Bumblebee is imbued with the same charm and grace of its predecessors. When Charlie and Bee go their separate ways, I shed an honest-to-God tear watching a Transformers movie: a testament to Bumblebee’s startlingly effective image rehabilitation for the franchise.

Bumblebee’s success provided a lesson that should be obvious but is nevertheless instructive for any studio managing established IP: These films work far better when audiences have a reason to be emotionally invested in them. (It also helps that Bumblebee is tiny by Transformers standards, which makes him kind of adorable.) As a self-contained coming-of-age story, however, Bumblebee didn’t exactly lend itself to a sequel. Instead, the next installment in the franchise, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, appears to want the best of both worlds: large-scale action without sacrificing the grounded character moments that hold it all together.

Rise of the Beasts begins on a faraway planet that’s home to the Maximals—essentially, robots that take the form of animals—as they face an existential threat from Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo), a colossal, planet-devouring entity. (I will never get over the fact that Unicron was voiced by Orson Welles—yes, the Orson Welles!!!—in the first animated Transformers movie, which came out in 1986.) A handful of Maximals escape Unicron’s wrath thanks to the MacGuffin—sorry, the Transwarp Key—that allows the robots to open wormholes and travel through space and time. Were Unicron to attain the key, he could eat his way through the universe. If that’s not silly enough, I should also mention that the Maximals are led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), a giant robo-gorilla who speaks with the same gravitas as the iconic Autobot leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), though they bear no relation. (While we’re on the subject: Can robots be related? Do the Autobots and Maximals procreate? Am I spending too much time thinking about the lineage of Hasbro toy lines? Probably.)

From there, Rise of the Beasts moves the action to New York in the ’90s, where we meet our new human protagonists: Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), an unemployed army vet looking to pay his ailing younger brother’s mounting medical bills, and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a gifted archaeological intern frequently belittled by her domineering boss. Naturally, both of their lives quickly intersect with the robots in disguise. At the same time that Elena accidentally activates a beacon from an ancient artifact that happens to be one-half of the Transwarp Key, Noah jacks a Porsche that’s actually Mirage (Pete Davidson), a mouthy Autobot with the ability to project holograms of himself. Unfortunately, the beacon alerts Unicron’s minions (known as Terrorcons), which puts the Autobots in a race to track down the other half of the device before it falls into enemy hands. Thrust into a conflict that could determine the fate of their planet, Noah and Elena team up with the Autobots on a journey that leads them to Peru, where the surviving Maximals have spent centuries in hiding.

While Ramos and Fishback have proved to be able performers early in their respective careers, a glorified fetch quest doesn’t do their characters any favors. All told, Rise of the Beasts feels like it came out of a franchise assembly line: It has an algorithmic plot that somehow required five credited screenwriters to patch the whole thing together. (It’s rarely a good sign when a film nearly has enough writers to make up the staff of a TV series.) The one-liners delivered by Davidson have a depressingly low hit rate, and a generic third-act showdown between masses of indistinguishable CGI metal goes on far longer than anyone can tolerate. By the time Rise of the Beasts culminates with a shameless setup for a larger interconnected universe of Hasbro figures, it’s clear the film is merely checking off all the boxes that audiences have come to expect—and often dread—from modern blockbusters.

Even Bay, for all his faults, has a distinct visual style—pull up any of the steroidal action sequences from the first five Transformers movies without context, and they couldn’t be mistaken for the work of any other filmmaker. For Rise of the Beasts director Steven Caple Jr., it’s a different story: The sheer anonymity on display will make you wonder whether AI is capable of infiltrating not just screenwriting, but also every aspect of moviemaking. The disappointment even extends to the manner in which Rise of the Beasts deploys its soundtrack, which is filled with crowd-pleasing hits from hip-hop’s golden age. How could a movie possibly mess that up? Well, at one point, Mirage shouts, “Wu-Tang is in the building!”—yes, this extraterrestrial robot is well versed in the era’s pop culture—before the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” plays over a scene. It’s an inexcusable goof, and it epitomizes how Rise of the Beasts is just going through the motions.

Thankfully, if there’s one saving grace for Rise of the Beasts, it’s the little Autobot that could. After being sidelined for the majority of the film, Bumblebee emerges in glorious fashion during the climax, jumping out of a plane to help turn the tides against Unicron’s army. I can think of no better endorsement for Bumblebee’s magnetism than the kids who sat in front of me screaming with joy upon his return to the action. Their unbridled enthusiasm was endearing. Even as he’s trapped in a franchise that keeps shooting itself in the foot, Bumblebee remains a genuine star: a robot whose expressiveness, even though he’s lost his voice, evokes the feeling that there’s a soul behind all that machinery. If only the rest of the Transformers franchise had something under the hood.